Business as usual for Fionnuala McCormack

McCormack returns to cross-country in Sunday’s national championship

The last thing Fionnuala McCormack wants is some fancy headline or blurb announcing her next big race, which is fair enough. Some athletes feel that need for recognition and promotion, others prefer to go about it with a little less fuss or fanfare.

McCormack has always been like that, as if allowing her achievements on the track, cross-country and now the road to be recognised and held up on merit alone, which they unquestionably do. By any standard, men or women, at home or abroad, 2019 was another standout year, and she’s not done yet.

Indeed her return to Sunday's National Cross-Country at the Sport Ireland campus at Abbotstown marks a sort of homecoming, and possibly sets her up for another crack at next month's European Cross-Country in Lisbon, where as Fionnuala Britton she won the first ever back-to-back titles in 2011-2012.

“That allure of it, I couldn’t resist,” she said this week. “I have always loved cross country, so I would say I am still motivated by what was my first love in the sport. It’s exciting to be able to go out and compete on an undulating, mucky, tough, ‘level playing field’ where times and shoe technology don’t have an impact and it comes down to the purest element of our sport, racing!”


Between the now combined Inter-club and Inter-county events, she’s already won eight senior cross-country titles, the most recent in 2015, and since then she’s been more focused on the marathon, while also taking out most of 2018 to give birth to daughter Isla, with her husband and now coach Alan McCormack.

The chief goal on her return was to qualify for her fourth Olympics, a journey only two other Irish women in history have ever completed, Sonia O'Sullivan and Olive Loughnane, and again there was little fuss or fanfare when McCormack achieved that in last month's Chicago Marathon.

There were no guarantees, only she soon picked up in 2019 where she left off. First, a return to the World Cross-Country in March, where just six months after giving birth to Isla, she took on a tough course in Aarhus, Denmark at least partly designed to test the East African challenge, her 18th place the second best European. That also won her 37th Irish senior international athletics cap, to extend her record for any Irish woman, more than both Sonia O’Sullivan (34) and Derval O’Rourke (32).

Just two weeks later, she ran her first marathon since the Rio Olympics, lining up for the famed Boston Marathon, producing another stellar run to finish 11th best woman overall, running a new lifetime best of 2:30.38.

The Olympic qualifying time, set at 2:29.30, was clearly within her reach, and after winning another Irish 5,000m title on track in July - by over a minute, again with little fanfare - she lined up in Chicago, a month after her 35th birthday, and produced one of the runs of her life, finishing a superb fifth in 2:26:47, carving almost four minutes off her personal best.

"Having just missed the top 10 by a few seconds, in Boston, it was very satisfying to improve on that and get a top five finish in Chicago," she says. It also moved her closet to Catherina McKiernan's Irish record of 2:22:23 set in 1998 (Mayo-born Sinead Diver is the only other Irish woman to have run faster with her 2:24:11).

Qualifying for a fourth Olympics is no easy feat, especially in distance running, yet 12 years after competing in the 3,000m steeplechase in Beijing in 2008, her motivation for that ultimate stage hasn’t in any way dwindled: “In 2007 when I first ran an Olympic qualifying time in the steeplechase, I would never have considered that 12 years later I would be back preparing for my fourth shot at an Olympics.”

What she’s not so sure about is the recent decision of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to move the Tokyo marathon and race walks some 800km north to Sapporo, in Hokkaido, in the hope the conditions will be cooler - only denying the chance to finish in the Olympic Stadium in the process.

“It annoys me that the athletes have been used as pawns in what can only be a political decision to take the marathons and race walks away from Tokyo. It appears to have been a decision forced on the Tokyo Local Organising Committee and Tokyo residents, who will be most impacted by the decision.

“For the athletes I don’t think conditions will be much different in Sapporo than in Tokyo. This year for example, on the 2nd of August, the weather was the same in both places. It will be tough conditions for racing either venue, but still looking forward to it.”

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics